Nellie Stewart 1858-1931
Stewart starred in Cinderella in 1900 and sang the memorial anthem at the opening of the first Federal Parliament at the Melbourne Exhibition Buildings in May 1901.
Although she was revered as Sweet Nell, Stewart had many other plays in her repertoire.
Nellie Stewart made her last appearance in Melbourne in 1930 at the Comedy Theatre in Edward Sheldon’s play Romance.
Back in Australia Stewart starred in Cinderella in 1900 and sang the memorial anthem at the opening of the first Federal Parliament at the Melbourne Exhibition Buildings in May 1901. On 15 February the following year she created the greatest success of her career, in the title role of Paul Kester’s play Sweet Nell of Old Drury. Everybody, including Musgrove, had predicted failure. Who would want to see Nellie Stewart in a straight play? She had no reputation as a dramatic actress, and yet she knew instinctively that she was ideally suited for the role. It would become the part for which she was most fondly remembered, and which she would play, time and again, until shortly before her death nearly three decades later.
In 1906 Musgrove took his production of Sweet Nell to the United States. Their scenery and costumes were lost in the San Francisco earthquake, and the tour was abandoned. Musgrove never fully recovered from this setback. Back in Australia he mounted an extensive country and New Zealand tour of Sweet Nell. Tragically, Raymond Longford’s 1911 film record of their production has been lost.
Stewart was shattered by Musgrove’s death in 1916. In poor health and reduced circumstances, she was befriended by entrepreneur Hugh D. McIntosh. He dusted off the Sweet Nell sets and costumes and presented the old play ‘one act per week’ as part of the regular vaudeville bills at his Sydney and Melbourne Tivoli Theatres. In 1920 he engaged Stewart as a coach for the leads in his productions of The Lilac Domino and Chu Chin Chow. He also sponsored a Nellie Stewart School of Acting in Sydney.
Although she was revered as Sweet Nell, Stewart had many other plays in her repertoire, among them Mice and Men, Sweet Kitty Bellairs, Zaza, Dolores, A Country Mouse, Camille, Trilby, What Every Woman Knows, When Knighthood Was in Flower and As You Like It. These she often presented in repertory with Sweet Nell; she could always rely on it to fill the theatre if things got tough.
Nellie Stewart made her last appearance in Melbourne in 1930 at the Comedy Theatre in Edward Sheldon’s play Romance (it was subsequently filmed with Greta Garbo in the lead). Hal Porter remembered: ‘She was 72 but this was not apparent from the auditorium, as she moved with the litheness of a young woman and, with the merest huskiness tingeing her voice, gave the touch of truth to the eternally trite words of the playwright’.
Ross Cooper: ‘Nellie Stewart’, in Australian Dictionary of Biography, volume 12, Melbourne University Press
Richard Lane: ‘Nellie Stewart’, in Companion to Theatre in Australia, Currency Press, 1995
Hal Porter: Stars of Australian Stage and Screen, Rigby, 1965
Marjorie Skill: Sweet Nell of Old Sydney, Urania Publishing, 1974
Nellie Stewart: My Life’s Story, John Sands, 1923
Frank Van Straten: ‘Nellie Stewart – Fated for the Theatre’, in Stages, June 1991